There’s a shift going on at the Ozaukee County Justice Center.
More defendants are opting for pro se litigation, which initially cuts down on work for area attorneys, but has resulted in a spike of “clean up” work on the back end.
“One-third to one-fourth of my business is now spent repairing mistakes that people have made in pro se litigation,” said Eric Zaeske, an attorney at Milwaukee-based Bandle & Zaeske LLP. “People want to save a few thousand dollars on an attorney, but then spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to fix huge errors.
“It’s horrific because some of these things you can’t repair.”
The choice to self-represent often comes down to budget, Ozaukee County Clerk of Court Mary Lou Mueller said. Many of those who opt for pro se do so to avoid paying attorney fees, she said.
In the past two years, she said, the county has seen a notable increase in pro se litigation, particularly in family court, where 80 percent of cases now involve self-representation.
But without a formal legal background, Zaeske said, it’s easy for pro se litigators to make mistakes. And even one mistake, he said, can cause parties to lose out on property, money and even custody of a child.
“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they can start without an attorney and hire one later,” Zaeske said. “But what you do at the start of a case is so important. By the time they realize that, they’re way over their heads.”
To help pro se litigators avoid making mistakes, Mary Lou Mueller said, the county added a family law assistance center in 2005. The center on Wednesdays provides volunteer attorneys, who offer guidance to people representing themselves in divorce cases, she said.
The county also launched a new website in June that provides access to all of the forms needed to file for divorce, legal custody, restraining orders and small claims.
There are certain cases where volunteer-assisted pro se litigation makes sense, said attorney Karen Zimmermann, who volunteers at the law assistance center and owns Bayside-based Zimmermann Law Offices SC.
“There are a lot of cases where parties just need help with the paperwork,” she said. “They’re not going to go to attorneys anyway, so we might as well make the process as efficient as possible.”
When papers aren’t properly filled out, Zimmermann said, it can create a huge backlog for the courts.
As the county seeks more attorneys to volunteer at the center, other court officials are stepping up to help with the increased pro se litigation, Mary Lou Mueller said.
Sitting down with pro se litigators in divorce cases and walking them through the process has become a full-time job for Chief Deputy Clerk of Court Connie Mueller.
“I can sometimes act as a mediator too,” she said. “But I always have to be careful, because I can’t actually give them legal advice.”
The increase in pro se litigation requires more time and patience from front desk employees, too, said Therese Wester, who works in the Clerk of Courts Office.
“Helping people takes about double the time it used to,” she said.
It’s shaking up the way trials are conducted, as well, said Ozaukee Circuit Judge Paul Malloy, as pro se litigation is causing longer trials.
“My job is to be patient with both sides and let them feel like they’re getting the time they deserve,” Malloy said. “Nothing is more frustrating for them than to think they aren’t being taken seriously.”
The increase of pro se litigators creates a different courtroom environment, he said.
“As judges, we get used to dealing with lawyers, and dealing with pro se litigators isn’t as smooth,” Malloy said. “Pro se litigators sometimes don’t understand that what they see on TV isn’t what a courtroom’s really like.”
To avoid clean-up work in criminal cases, where the stakes usually are high, court officials try to defer pro se litigation in that area, Ozaukee Circuit Judge Sandy Williams said.
The county offers a payment plan for criminal defendants who don’t qualify for a public defender but can’t afford an attorney, Williams said.
“We just don’t want someone stumbling through with stuff like this,” she said. “Particularly, when it can end with incarceration.”